Year of accountability in Iraq
Carlton M. Caves
2006 January 27

Bush has had the floor on Iraq for over two months now, thanks mainly to a blitzkrieg of speeches that have been given in such quick succession that nothing else---in particular, criticism of the Bush gang's policies---can gain any traction in the media. Never mind that the speeches all say essentially the same thing. Repetition is effective, as long as anybody is listening, and the power of the presidency obligates the press to pay attention. By almost never saying anything new, Bush ensures that every change in or addition to his message, no matter how small, is greeted with the analytic fervor that used to be reserved for the subtle changes in wording by which the Soviet Politburo signalled its intentions. What a way to dominate the news. Always say next to nothing, so the next next-to-nothing you say will be analyzed to death. Here's a couple of examples.

Naval Academy, November 30:  Bush spells out his "Plan for Victory" in Iraq. There's nothing new in the plan; it's a rehash of what the Bush gang has been doing all along. What's new is that it's now called a plan, and to make sure you don't miss the point, Bush is fronted by a gigantic banner proclaiming "Plan for Victory" and backed by a checkerboard of smaller signs saying the same thing. During the course of the speech, Bush admits, "Over the past two and a half years, we've faced some setbacks in standing up a capable Iraqi security force---and their performance is still uneven in some areas." There's a frenzy of speculation in the press that this admission signals a new candor on Iraq.

Park Hyatt, Philadelphia, December 12:  After another numbing recitation of his strategy for victory, Bush responds to five questions from audience members. In answer to the first, he estimates that "30,000 (Iraqis), more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis." The press goes into a tizzy about Bush's coming out of isolation---he took questions from other than a handpicked audience!---and about further candor---he admitted that Iraqis have died since our invasion and even estimated the number!

If you were hoping that the candor would lead to an acknowledgment of at least some of the Bush gang's bungling in Iraq, forget it. The most you'll find in these speeches is that sometimes things haven't gone smoothly or that there have been setbacks. It's all phrased in the language of victimization---first-person pronouns disappear, and bad things just happen---language we all use on occasion and recognize immediately as a ploy to avoid responsibility.

Bracketing the speech blitz like malignant bookends are the Veteran's Day (November 11) speech at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania and the January 10 speech to the VFW at a Washington hotel. The bookends are Bush's quite explicit warnings in these speeches not to criticize him and his administration. Sure, there's a perfunctory lead-in about how criticism is part of our great democratic tradition, and he welcomes it, but this is immediately contradicted by his putting his critics on notice that "irresponsible debate" undermines our troops and their mission in Iraq.

Notice the weighting in his Veterans Day speech: "While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decision or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began. ... These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them. Our troops deserve to know that this support will remain firm when the going gets tough. And our troops deserve to know that, whatever our differences in Washington, our will is strong, our nation is united and we will settle for nothing less than victory."

In the speech to the VFW, Bush put it this way: "It's one of the great strengths of our democracy that we can discuss our differences openly and honestly---even in times of war. Yet we must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate, and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas. ... When our soldiers hear politicians in Washington question the mission they are risking their lives to accomplish, it hurts their morale."

The message here is unmistakeable: can the criticism, and don't question the mission, or be labelled a traitor to our troops. It's disgusting how the Bush gang shamelessly uses the troops as a prop to burnish the president's image---remember "Mission Accomplished"---and as a shield against criticism.

In addition to blatant attempts to suppress criticism, the blitz speeches do contain the three cornerstones of the Bush gang's current Iraq policy.

This must be the year of accountability for the Bush administration and its Iraq policies. There are many past actions and blunders for which the Bush gang should be held accountable: the manipulation of pre-war intelligence, the lack of planning for the occupation, the shifting justifications for the whole adventure, the emergence of Iraq as an important center of global terror, the failure to start training Iraqi security forces till mid-2004, the inability to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and to reconstruct its economy. These should rightly be a part of the 2006 congressional campaign, as a way of demonstrating the administration's deception and general incompetence on Iraq. The emphasis, however, should be on holding the Bush gang responsible for what it has now laid out in its strategy for victory in Iraq. Inadequate and imperfect though the strategy is as an actual plan for the Iraq mission, it is the most specific thing we've ever seen from the Bush gang, and they should be held to it.

To do this, the Democrats in Congress have to awake from their torpor. They should introduce legislation to require the Bush administration to provide quarterly reports to the Congress and the people, both written reports and testimony from senior administration officials. These reports should detail the objectives and plans for the Iraq mission, give estimates of the cost in terms of lives and treasure, provide rough timetables for achieving the objectives, and most important, furnish a clear statement of where the mission is expected to be at the time of the next report three months hence. The Democrats should demand that by the time of the mid-year report this year, the administration must be able to outline a clear path to the end of the Iraq occupation. Since the Republicans will block such legislation if it holds the administration to any meaningful accountability, the Democrats should hold their own mock hearings at each reporting period, to remind the American people that the Bush gang, abetted by its Republican allies in Congress, refuses to provide information and answer questions about the Iraq mission. The October mock hearings should be a focus of the 2006 congressional campaign.

The country is ready at last to hear sustained criticism of Bush and the Republicans on Iraq. Even Bush's blitz of speeches only managed to recover the wavering part of his base. A clear majority of Americans remain dissatisfied. A relentless focus on the Bush gang's failures in Iraq and its refusal to be held accountable is the best way to crystallize this dissatisfaction into the revulsion necessary to sweep away the current Republican majorities in Congress. Then we can really start to hold Bush's feet to the fire.

Addendum: 2006 February 3

Bush's State of the Union message was the next next-to-nothing, and sure enough, the media is falling all over itself analyzing every subtle change in wording and emphasis. The only surprise was Bush's admission that America is addicted to oil. If your gut reaction was, "That's just for show, like his New Orleans promise to confront poverty and racism with bold action," you were right, as comments from Energy Secretary Bodman have already shown.

   Index to CMC commentaries